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Presenting heritage in its integrality for today's society

An interview with Tosho Spiridonov

Historian, anthropologist and archaeologist from Sophia, Bulgaria, by Ana Frangovska, art historian and curator.
Presenting heritage in its integrality for today's society
© ALDA

Tosho Spiridonov is a leading expert in the field of ancient Thrace, historical geography, historical ethnography, anthropology, archaeology and has particular expertise in digitisation of cultural and historical heritage. He is an associate professor of history at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and director of the National Centre for Digitalisation of the National Scientific Expeditionary Club UNESCO. Mr Spiridonov participated in the creation of numerous projects in the fields of cultural tourism, ethnology and folklore. He was a director at the Museum of History and an expert at the Ministry of Culture.

He has great collaboration with colleagues from North Macedonia, very close exchange with the Faculty of Philosophy at the University “St. Cyril and Methodius”, especially in the field of digitalisation of the cultural heritage and in the creation of a software for the Museums in Macedonia that is ready for implementation.
 
We do have heritage that can evoke different – sometimes difficult or competing – views and emotions, depending on the approach and viewpoint. The challenge of dealing with such divergence lies in the attempt to simultaneously convey different views and voices when presenting this heritage to the public. Do you agree and do you think that this is an essential task when dealing with heritage and histories that speak to different people in different ways?

Tosho: The answer to all questions related to historical heritage has been and will always be complex. It is complex because it has always been influenced by the political situation, which pursues its own goals, and in the name of which it is ready to ignore the historical truth which in itself is complex. That is why heritage should be seen as something that has two sides. One side is the legacy related to the lives of the people who created it, who actually participated in its creation and used it in their daily lives. The other side is to contextualise the heritage through the perspective present life. The present context dictates to scientists and politicians (because they study, use and present this heritage to today’s people) what exactly to say, how exactly to present heritage, having today’s tasks that they have to solve.That is why the analysis of heritage has two sides that must be clearly defined and presented to the people: in what historical context this heritage was created; how we “read” this legacy today. Without this unity, society will always be subject to the influence of one or the other side of the heritage’s interpretation. That is why I believe that presenting heritage in its integrality is very important for today’s society in order to understand its past and participate in building its future.

Which are peaceful and tolerant ways of reading and presenting facts about  shared or contested history according to you?

Tosho: Reading history has two sides. One side is personal, because everyone reads it, breaking it through their personal history. For example, in Bulgaria I see that there are people who curse the time of socialism, because then the government took away some of their property  or they suffered other type of losses as a result of the system. Others, on the contrary, regret socialism, because this system  gave them the opportunity to study and achieve something in their lives. And although this example is not directly related to heritage, it is indicative of the refraction of common history through personal history. How to read and present historical facts?

The simple answer is – through compromises on both sides, in the name of the future of both parties in the dispute. If there are insurmountable points of contention, they must be set aside. They should be the subject of calm scientific debates and discussions, with all the source materials and evidence on the table. Throughout these discussions, both sides should not be subjected to political and media pressure until a positive result is achieved.

Do you engage in cross-border cooperation with professionals from North Macedonia and do you find any difficulties in its realisation?

Tosho: Yes, I have cooperation with colleagues from North Macedonia. So far I have no difficulties in this cooperation – on the contrary, I meet a positive response to our initiatives and I respond alike to their initiatives.

Can you think of an example of a case study of shared or contested heritage related to your particular field of interest (ethno-music, history, archaeology, contemporary art, art history etc.) and how would you approach its presentation?

Tosho: I work in the field of ancient history, historical geography and archaeology. With the DIOS Society and the National Research and Expedition Club – UNESCO – Sofia  we engaged in cooperation with colleagues from the University of Skopje and the archaeological site in Stobi and we jointly developed software for the work of Macedonian museums and it is ready for implementation in practice.

Together with my colleague Svilen Stoyanov we participated in a conference in Ohrid, dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage in North Macedonia.

I must say that I see small issues pertaining to the lack of geographical coordinates of each archaeological site, which will prevent the localisation of these sites in their exact place on the archaeological map and will make it difficult to work together. However, it opens room for a joint work in which we could cooperate – we can train Macedonian archaeologists to deal with this problem, which is essential in archaeological practice; the same is true of ethnographers and historians.

How we choose to remember the past and how we choose to move forward are the critical issues of today. What does cultural heritage mean in different national and regional contexts? Who can claim it as theirs, and who decides how it is preserved, displayed, or restored? How to share cultural heritage?

Tosho: Remembering the past is a matter of experience, and the experience is either personal or public. The personal experience of the past determines “my” attitude towards this past, which may not coincide with the public one. Social experience depends on many factors, the most important of which is the goal of today’s society and by what means can this goal will be achieved. Public experience forms the national context of cultural heritage, because it determines what selected points of reference in the history of this society will lay in the pursuit of its current goals. The regional context is something else, and it depends on the geographical location, on the local development of the given area and on the relations with the neighbouring areas. One geographical area may be more related or less related to another, and this is the most important factor as we go back in time. It all depends on the geographical location – whether an important trade route passes through a given region, whether the conditions allow a certain craft to develop, whether the region is influenced by this or that neighbouring region.Each region belongs to one or other society/state. All this happened as a consequence of the historical development of the given lands. Therefore, it is the job of this society/state to take into account the interests of each region that has fallen as a result of this historical development in this society/state. In this manner only will it be possible to build a cohesive society – when the interests of each region are taken into account. Neglecting the interests of a region leads to differences in society, which in turn leads to an unstable society. Hence the answer to the question – each region wants to preserve samples of its culture – restored, preserved, displayed. Because the further back in time we go, the greater the differences in cultural development between the different regions we see due to the weaker communications between the different regions of a country.Man has not come up with many different ways to share the patterns of cultural heritage. In summary, these are three ways – research, education and cultural tourism, each has its own specifics and can be considered at length.

“What signifies the national narratives are that they do not include layers; they are one-sided, often chronological and has a sense of a fixed, static, historical truth, about them, said Anderson in 1991.” Do you agree with this citation and why?

Tosho: What Anderson says is mostly about national stories, and it’s true. What is the purpose of these stories? The national narrative has one important task – to unite the people of one territory by telling a chronologically constructed story that tells them the historical truth about themselves. He somewhat ignores the past, because there may be facts that will make one doubt whether this society is really as homogeneous as presented, whether there are no separate groups of people in it who think differently, and so on. In other words – if we start from the rule that the nation is a new stage in the ethnic development of society, it must have its own history; with it begins a new ethnic formation.

"Remembering the past is a matter of experience, and the experience is either personal or public"

Another method of challenging the national narrative, regarding shared or contested heritage, would be to go from the particular to the universal. Cornelius Holtorf writes: “(…) the new cultural heritage can transcend cultural particularism by promoting values and virtues derived from humanism and a commitment to global solidarity.” What do you think about this?
Tosho: The national narrative built on humanism and global solidarity is in the same direction as Anderson’s thinking. The same is important for Holtroff – he thinks that in no cultural heritage can be found in the past that would unite the population of a given country in the present. That is why it is important to find a new heritage – these are new “monuments of cultural heritage”, subordinated to humanism, to solidarity between the people in a country. Leaving aside to some extent the specific suggestion of the old monuments, these new “monuments” are universal, and they will unite people in the name of the future goal. These may be brand new monuments, but they may also be some of the past that will receive a new interpretation, subject to the goal – to unite the population around a single red thread – from the past. However, these old monuments must be carefully selected so as not to disturb the feelings of people who perceive them differently.

When we discuss about shared or contested heritage the issue of time is essential, and in extreme cases of recent turmoil, the best method for reconciliation might not be to address the past as individually relatable; but rather that the past should hopefully remain in the past. Do you think that this can be implemented into our context?

Tosho: The past is the past! It must not be distorted or transformed in the light of today’s political or national tasks. Such a transformation will lead to greater complications within the society/state itself and to greater difficulties in solving today’s tasks. A new nation must be built on two main pillars. The first is the past, the second is the future. The past – no matter what it is, is not crucial, it only tells us that a population lived in this area in the past. That is why a certain point in time is chosen, from which the gradual formation of the new nation begins – no matter what the reasons. It is important what the roots are, but more important is what today’s population creates, how they process the knowledge about themselves. It could be as (planting one variety of apple on another tree – a rough but true principle – the roots are old, with their “history”, but the apple already represents a new variety, and this is more important.

Do you think that being more polyvocal, engaging, diverse, (self-)reflective and participatory may solve some of the obstacles on the way of presenting cultural heritage (shared or contested)?

Tosho: I believe that anyone who deals with cultural heritage and works with good intentions and commitment can solve at least one of the problems. The disputed heritage must be considered in the context of the time in which it was created. At that precise moment it met the requirements of that society. However, viewed in the context of today’s society heritage looks (or presents itself) in a different way. It’s all a matter of how today’s society “sees” this legacy, not what it represented then. In the theory of the ethnos, each new ethnic group is built on the basis of at least two other, relatively different ethnic groups. If we do not recognize these ethnic groups, then obviously we will have difficulties in building “ours”, today’s ethnic group.

Do you think that the realm of words can influence the way the audience read the stories related to heritage (shared or contested)?

Tosho: As is well known, politics is an art of compromise. If the story is written in a way that respects the views of both parties, anyone who reads it can find in it what interests them. Then the cultural heritage will be clearer, understandable and accepted by society.

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The interview is conducted within the framework of the project “Shared or contested heritage”, implemented by ALDA Skopje and Forum ZFD. The aim of the project is to improve cross-border cooperation between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. The project raises awareness of the role of contested histories and shared cultural heritage for the EU integration processes among heritage practitioners and cultural workers. The content of the interview is the sole responsibility of the interviewee and does not always reflect the views and attitudes of ALDA and Forum ZFD.

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